Retired skipper Captain H Morris describes how he started in Thames sailing barges

Carr and Mason on barges2

Thames sailing barge illustration fromVanishing Craft, written by FGG Carr and illustrated by Frank Mason

Reading Hervey Benham’s book Down Tops’l yesterday eveing, I was very struck by the contents of a letter from Captain H Morris to the author. Captain Morris’s career in Thames sailing barges began when he decided to spend a holiday on a sailing barge, well away from his usual job in town.

‘I said to myself, this is the job for me, not sitting on an office stool making out invoices all day long. Of course my parents were all much against it. “All beer and bad language,” they said. However, the call was too great and I went to Faversham and got a job for two more trips as third hand and then mate. Incidentally, there was no beer and no bad language with my first skipper, and he never got under way on a Sunday if he could help it. The two other skippers at Faversham never sailed on Sundays.

‘There were then 125 sailing barges and 14 coasters working to and from that little port.’

Of course, I do understand that all 139 vessels were unlikely to arrive and try to tie up at the same moment, but it’s still very difficult to imagine where all those craft put themselves – much more of the creek must have been in use as wharves than can be seen today.

And speaking of Faversham I have three items of news.

First, the new Faversham Creek Trust will be manning a stall in the town’s market square on Saturday. Do get along to chat with Trust officials and offer your support!

Second – the Westmoreland is afloat after years of being washed by each tide. Read all about it here.

Third – Giacomo de Stefano (Man on the River), who is rowing and sailing his Iain Oughtred-designed small open boat from London to Istanbul plans to leave Faversham’s Standartd Quay on the 1st May, in order to draw attention to efforts to save it. Naturally I plan to be there if I can find out what time he’s planning to go (the tides suggest it will be some time after 11am) and will share any information I get…

PS – Here’s a photo of Giacomo and pal rowing his Iain Oughtred-designed Ness Yawl named Clodia just after 12.30 on Sunday. The last I heard was that he had wisely decided to get a tow over to the River Stour however – the idea of sailing a small open boat round the North Foreland in yesterday’s winds didn’t appeal and I can’t blame him!

Giacomo rowing Clodia off Standard Quay, Faversham Creek Giacomo rowing Clodia off Standard Quay, Faversham Creek 2

Hervey Benham on the wonderful benefits of sailing a smack

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Mersea oyster smacks from Hervey Benham's Last Stronghold of Sail

Mersea oyster smacks from Hervey Benham’s Last Stronghold of Sail

In The Last Stronghold of Sail, Hervey Benham writes in fine, persuasive style about sailing a smack:

‘In a comparatively few years, it will  be impossible to experience at first hand the glory of a work-boat under sail, and the yachtsmen who really hear the message the sea has for them will look wistfully back at the old books and wonder what it all amounted to.

‘When I bought my eleven-ton Mersea smack Charlotte I did not know. I had at that time a pretty six-ton cutter built around the turn of the century at Cowes, as sweet a model as ever you saw but too small to be manly. I got sick of trailing my boom end in the water on a quartering breeze and felt the Charlotte would be fun to amble majestically about in.  I pictured myself pushing half Burnham River in front of me and bringing up with my tarry topsides vexing the eyes of the diners in the Royal Corinthian Clubhouse. I had not the faintest idea I was becoming master of  something which, besides wide decks spacious enough to take a real stroll on, posessed the spirit of a terrior, the nimbleness of a polo pony, and the heart of a lion.

‘Sailing her was essentially different from handling any yacht I have known, chiefly because of her true flush deck, without a cockpit of any kind, and the way it enabled her gear to be spread about. There was a deliberate certainty about all she did. One could move about her and set up her gear unencumbered by anything obstructing action or vision. What a different job it was walking along beside her long boom, reefing her heavy, docile, loose-footed flax mainsail, to the struggle to roll up the fluttering folds  of a laced yacht sail, one leg in the cockpit, the other seeking a hold on a rounded cabin-top. She had hardly a shackle about her rigging, which was all rope strops and easy-fitting iron hooks. She had not a wire splice anywhere, the main shrouds being simply seized round dead-eyes. She had hefty wooden cleats to supplement the friendly fife-rail. It was all as ample and comfortable as an old tweed jacket.

‘Though I sailed her often by myself, I never led her jib-sheets aft.  In the narrowest of creeks one could always down-helm and leave the tiller in charge of the tiller-line, while one sauntered forward and tended the headsail. Hurry? Not a bit of it! Round she came, shooting ahead a smack’s length, and you could stop up by the bitts as long as you liked and let her settle down on the new tack. A  lee shore amused the Charlotte. I well remember being caught at Queenborough and fearing I should drag ashore there, of all unattractive spots. The reefed mainsail and small jib were set, and she tacked her way up to the anchor as I got in the chain. She broke it out herself when she felt like it and went trundling away up the Medway, while I sat on the windlass and let her sort it out.

‘Then there were the days trawling. Running her off before the wind, we streamed the net, and then, as the helm went down, she swept around in a great arc as if to have a look at her trawl now spread out in the water to windward of her like a duchesses train. When we thought she had inspected it sufficiently we tipped the beam over, took the foresail off, and left her to tow where the soles lay thickest. She liked us to lay the tiller on deck as a gesture of handing over to her. I would this moment as soon be sitting on her weather quarter holding the trawl warp and feeling the iron heads bumping and grunting along over the Beach Head below me as anywhere in the whole wide world – though in actual fact I generally soon hopped down into the cabin to put the kettle on.’

‘Of course there was a price… ‘

Great stuff – Last Stronghold of Sail is a super book, if you can find it – however there are copies at very reasonable prices listed at ABE Books.

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Hervey Benham tells stories from the great storms of 1883 and 1884

The chilling engraving The Storm by William Miller after Van de Velde,
published in 1858. From the Wikimedia

The great gales of ’83 and ’84 were legendary. The song Three Score and Ten describing their effects on the East Coast fishing fleet was widely sung from Yorkshire down to Cornwall, and when talking to Ewan MacColl in the 1950s, old Norfolk fisherman Sam Larner said that as a boy in those years he remembered seeing the body of one of the sailors washed up on the shore through the window of a mortuary.

It seems that the 1884 storm was a double hit, for in the months before the 1884 storm fish had suddenly become so plentiful that the prices paid at the fish markets were very low – so a period of relative poverty for the fishing community was followed by the tragedy of many deaths.

Larner said that after these events there was a local saying: ‘Oh dear, oh lor, the dreadful fishing of 1884.’

A few years before MacColl interviewed Larner, Hervey Benham recorded the dramatic recollection below and published it in his excellent book The Last Stronghold of Sail – the story of the Essex sailing smacks, coasters and barges. You might find a copy at ABE Books.

I should explain that the ‘skilling’ was the practice of dredging for oysters off Terschilling on the Dutch coast, and bringing them back in wet holds. It was a big business in those days.

‘The terrible losses in the great gales of 1883 and 1884 had as much as anything to do with the end of the ‘skilling’. Five smacks, Mascotte, Conquest, Recruit, Pride and William and Mary, and 27 men from Brightlingsea were lost in two gales in those years, days of disaster which the tablets round the church walls recall.

‘From Charlie Death, a grand old veteran of the place, I heard how the cutter Express came as near being lost as was possible in the 1884 gale. About seven in the morning they were in a gale of wind with a seven-cloth jib set abaft the mast, when a sea broke aboard and took everything out of her except the mast and bowsprit. One hand, Walter Crampton, was washed overboard and lost. Sails, boat, spars and bulwarks were gone, and, believe it or not, even the cross trees from the mast. The ballast, dredges, and eight thousand oysters in her hold had shifted so that she lay with her upper dead-eyes in the water.

‘They let go a couple of dredges over her bow to try to bring her up to the sea, but it was to no avail, and as fast as they tried to get the ballast back it shot up into her side again. At two o’clock in the afternoon another sea swept them, taking the hatches and ripping up the decks. Now they were a floating wreck, and the men felt inclined to give up, but Death got them to set a five-cloth jib abaft the mast, and, having done this, they left him with some rum at four o’clock in the afternoon lashed to the tiller. Once he was swept away bya a sea, but at dawn the battered Express crept into Yarmouth Roads and anchored. Next day they sailed her home – and drew four shillings a head!’